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Back to the Future: The Ethics of Cloning Neanderthals and Creating Genetically Modified Animals

“George Church, a genetics professor of Harvard School of Medicine, said that the process was possible and that far from being brutal and primitive, Neanderthals were intelligent beings.

They are believed to be one of the ancestors of modern man and became extinct 33,000 years ago. He added that altering the human genome could also provide the answers to curing diseases such as cancer and HIV, and hold the key to living to 120.

He told Der Spiegel, the German magazine: “I have already managed to attract enough DNA from fossil bones to reconstruct the DNA of the human species largely extinct. Now I need an adventurous female human.”

The professor claims that he could introduce parts of the Neanderthal genome to human stem cells and clone them to create a foetus that could then be implanted in a woman.”

From The Telegraph 

This would be illegal in the UK and many other parts of the world. But is it morally wrong?

Actually, the proposal raises few new ethical issues.

A number of years ago, another eminent Harvard scientist told me that with 6 million dollars, he could create a live born human-chimp chimera, like in Planet of the Apes. I had suspected that this was possible and had written on the ethics of transgenic and chimeric humans [2]. In fact, I gave it to a student as a project in 1998.

The creation of life forms not presently in existence on earth whether by cloning, introducing genes across the animal and plant kingdoms, fusing embryos of different species, or using embryonic stem cells from different species, raises a range of ethical issues.

The reasons for doing this kind of research are varied. Church mentions increasing diversity, including cognitive diversity (he claims Neanderthals may think differently to us and this might be an advantage in some circumstances), understanding disease and aging, and preventing these. Other reasons include understanding biological including human development and acquisition of capacities.

The problem with any novel entity is that you don’t know exactly what it is like, how it works, what makes it happy or sad, what is in its interests. One proposal already on the table is to create a mouse with a human brain – what would it be like to be such a being? The humanized mouse would be a perfect model for studying neurological disease, but even if it couldn’t talk, could it think, and how would it feel?

The major issue with creating new life forms is determining the moral status of such entities and what is in their interests. Ethically, we should not create new life forms only to inflict suffering on them. We have a responsibility to ensure that what we create experiences and minimally fulfilling and decent life, human or non-human. In the case of cloned Neanderthals and human-nonhuman chimeras, this would require extensive psychological and physical testing to determine what constitutes flourishing for that new being.

I have previously proposed a 4 stage process to evaluating proposals to create “Genetically Modified Animals” [1]. This would include cloning Neanderthals.

Stage 1. Determination of and Respect for Moral Status

The most important ethical constraint on creating GMAs should be should be the correct determination of their moral status and appropriate treatment. “Moral status” is the standing or position of a being within a hierarchical framework of moral obligations. There are two relevant tasks:

1. Ontology: What Are the Criteria of Moral Status?
In brief, the presence of sentience would imply a right not have painful or other unpleasant experiences inflicted on it. The presence of self-consciousness or some other higher cognitive capacity would imply the right not to be killed.

2. Epistemology: Determining Moral Status
Once we are clear on the ontology–what moral status consists in, for example, sentience, higher cognitive capacity, and the like–it will be necessary to determine whether a novel GMA has the requisite properties (for example, capacity toexperience pain or self-consciousness, moral agency, ability to use a language, etc.). This is an epistemological question about how we determine a being’s capacities. Clearly such determinations have been enormously difficult in contemporary psychology and cognitive science, and significant experimental work would have to be done on any new GMA. For example, it would be important to establish what conditions of socialisation are necessary for flourishing. Perhaps it would only be ethical to create of a community of Neanderthals.

Stage 2. Reasons in Favor of Animal Enhancement

The second major ethical constraint on the creation of GMAs is that genetic modification of animals or cloning should be done for a good reason. Perhaps the animal should be modified or created to enhance it for the benefit of itself, other members of its species, or members of other species, such as human beings.

Stage 3. Reasonable Risk and Consent

The third stage to evaluating creation of GMAs is whether the subsequent treatment of the animal conforms to the two basic principles of the review of protocols in research ethics, in particular, establishing whether the GMA will be exposed to reasonable risk and whether consent for any procedures after its creation is obtained if the animal is competent. These principles apply whether or not the GMA is created as a part of a research project.

Study of “animal autonomy” in the sense relevant to consent is an entirely undeveloped field. It will require further conceptual normative work to elucidate how animals could be autonomous in a morally relevant sense.

Stage 4. Prevention of Harm to Others

An important stage of evaluation of the creation of GMAs is evaluation of the risks that their creation poses to others, now and in the future.

1. Direct Harm
One issue is direct harm that might result to humans of creating a GMA. For example, concerns have been expressed about novel infectious risks.

2. Dual Use
A profoundly important moral issue is the potential “dual use” of powerful
biotechnology–meaning use for both good and evil purposes. The kinds of procedures developed for creating GMAs could be used to construct entities that pose direct risk to humans.

This proposal is a first-attempt. While Neanderthals might not be cloned, scientists are seriously considering for good reason the creation of new GMAs which are part human.

We urgently need a set of procedures whereby this can be done ethically.


1. Savulescu, J. ‘Genetically Modified Animals: Should There be Limits to Engineering the Animal Kingdom?’. In Beauchamp, T. and Frey, R. (eds) Oxford Handbook of Animals and Ethics. Oxford University Press (2011) , p641-670
2. Savulescu, J. (2003) ‘Human-animal transgenesis and chimeras might be an expression of our humanity’. American Journal of Bioethics. 3(3);22-5 (Summer).
3. Savulescu, J., and Skene, L., (2008). ‘The Kingdom of Genes: Why Genes from Animals and Plants Will Make Better Humans’. Open Peer Commentary on Baylis, F. ‘Animal Eggs for Stem Cell Research: A Path Not Worth Taking’. American Journal of Bioethics. 8:(12):35 ISSN: 1536-0075

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5 Comment on this post

  1. This is really interesting, thank you.

    I don’t know if you know the series of books by Jasper Fforde (the Eyre Affair and others) where ‘in a world where’ cloning Neanderthals has become normalised, they are used as a special caste of servants (effectively slaves). It’s a fascinating way of putting this ethical reflection in practice in pop fiction.


  2. Thanks. No I didn’t. I have referred to Planet of the Apes a lot in my teaching on human-nonhuman chimeras though. I will look it up

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  4. I am interested that you were thinking ape-human chimera in the past. I, too, wrote on that issue back in the 70s when genetic engineering was becoming more and more powerful. In a study I did for the World Council of Churches Department of Church and Society, which had a 40 year long project on science, technology and ethics, I worried about the possibility of creating creatures of uncertain moral status, arguing that if we can’t agree on the moral status of the foetus, how will we do with chimeras such as you have been concerned about. At the time, my concern was the creation of a chimp-human hybrid that might be used to clean industrial and radioactive waste sites. This was after Three Mile Island and Skylab. Of course, the Japanese power company in Fukushima didn’t need chimeras to brave high levels of radiation: they used their own workers. Thank you for your thoughtful work. I used your blog in my college ethics class today.

  5. Just because we CAN do something doesn’t mean we SHOULD! Having the government “signs off on the fish” after just two years of the new technology… Isn’t that like putting the fox in charge of the hen-house? We, the un-informed consumer, being the hens…

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